Today in Grateful Dead History: November 30, 1994 – McNichols Arena, Denver, CO

terrapinYou can usually tell when the Grateful Dead are playing well in 1994 based almost entirely on Jerry’s level of enthusiasm and the volume of his guitar.  Today Jerry is in good spirits and you can hear him, so we’re off to a good start.

I think most of the first set highlights today fall during songs that most people don’t care a lot about – West LA Fadeaway is pretty funky and the band’s work behind Bob Weir on Queen Jane Approximately  is really quite pretty.  The audience goes nuts at the end of Big River – I thought it was fine – and Cassidy to close out the set was a jammyish good time.

The second set opens with Victim or the Crime and Samba in the Rain.  While I’ve warmed just a little bit to Victim, Samba in the Rain has got to be one of my least favorite Dead songs of all time, and it’s not well done here.  But the boys make up for it with a very nice (for 1994) performance of Crazy Fingers and a good Estimated Prophet.  This transitions into Terrapin Station, which is seriously marred by Jerry’s lyrical flubs at all of the wrong, emotional, sing-along moments of the tune.  There’s not much going on during or after Drums and Space and the show just peters out into a fine Liberty encore.

Despite my luke-warm review, I think that this show and the next night (also in Denver) are pretty illustrative of good nights in 1994.  The band is not going to come even close to perfection, but there is still a lot to be grateful for here.

This audience recording requires some work with the EQ to get it dialed in, but once you do, it’s fine:


Today in Grateful Dead History: November 29, 1980 – Alligator Alley, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL

Dancing Skeletons

I took issue with yesterday’s show from Lakeland being included in 30 Trips Around the Sun because I thought it was a basic, good but not great, 1980 show.  Today’s show from just up the road in Gainesville, on the other hand, is incredible and will be added to my personal best-of list immediately.

It’s actually amazing that I loved this show as much as I did, because the first set, at least on paper, is pretty ho-hum.  But there are a couple of good things going on here.  First of all, this is a primo, A+ audience recording that sounds better than most soundboards ever will.  Second, the band is dialed in and there aren’t a lot of errors.  Third, even the slower numbers, like Row Jimmy, have an electric feel to them – you can sense the tension building in the band as the first set progresses.  By the time we get to Lost Sailor / St. of Circumstance, you can hear the boys beginning to boil – they pour everything into these songs, and the set-closing Don’t Ease Me In is barely holding on.

Now sometimes (especially in the 80’s and 90’s), when the Dead have a great first set, something happens at intermission (I won’t speculate) that tends to depress the second set, as if the band cannot sustain that kind of energy for a full show. But not on this night in Gainesville.  Here, the boys come out with the one-time only combination of Shakedown Street>Franklin’s Tower, and we’re off on the flight path to Mars.  Shakedown Street is massive, and Phil is all over the place (and easy to hear on this recording), blasting everything in his way as Brent wails into the tune.  The transition into Franklin’s actually sounds a lot like the breakdown in Stagger Lee, but at the last moment, after some temporary confusion, the band picks up the tune and races ahead with it, driving the audience crazy.  This is an above-average Franklin’s – it’s not as long as some other favorite versions, but the playing is concise and more than a little enjoyable.  From there, we keep things popping with a fiery version of Estimated Prophet that shouldn’t be ignored.  The band dials things down very nicely into a subtle He’s Gone, but don’t sleep on this version, because at the end the song gets twisted and turned and finally accelerates into a huge version of Truckin’.  This song goes out there quickly, and sometimes it’s hard to remember we’re there and not listening to The Other One.

Drums follows, but please, don’t skip it – this is one of those Drums that fits perfectly with the rest of the evening and transitions beautifully into a full, jammy, semi-structured Space.  Everyone is completely dialed in here, listening to one another and feeding the beast that slowly becomes The Other One, twenty minutes after I thought we were going there with Truckin’.  The first part of this song is the craziest, a wild, runaway ride that eventually gets reigned in for the proper part of the song.  As the band concludes you can hear the beginnings of Stella Blue.

Now, I, like most of you, love Stella Blue, but there are times when it makes me really nervous, because it comes at such a crucial emotional moment and I want the song to be perfect, and we all know that perfect and the Dead don’t go together very well.  So when the boys began playing Stella Blue tonight, after this whole sequence of magic, I was praying that Jerry wouldn’t completely blow the solo with those flat notes he often hits and that Bob wouldn’t begin whatever rocker you know he’s itching to play ten bars too early.  Well, today, everything works out – Jerry is just on the edge of perfection and Bob holds off until the right moment to launch Good Lovin’, making this a special and much-need Stella that brings the whole second set together.  And the Casey Jones encore ain’t bad either.

This show is a keeper – fortunately, since it’s an audience recording, you can.  Listen (and copy) here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 28, 1980 – Lakeland Civic Center, Lakeland, FL

Dancing Skeletons

It’s been a few months since we traveled to 1980, a fun, dynamic year for Grateful Dead performances.  Today’s show is stop two on a four-stop mini-tour of Florida and Georgia, and it’s captured on this lovely audience recording that I believe offers much more depth than the soundboard or the matrix.

Things start off tentatively with a muddy Jack Straw opener, but the band quickly settles down with a good version of Peggy-O and an up-tempo Little Red Rooster that suffers, as it often does during these years, from some serious Bob Weir guitar mishaps.  After a couple of lyrical miscues in Tennessee Jed, the band begins firing on this smoking version of Passenger, which is followed by the first electric version of Deep Elem Blues since 1970.  After hearing a lot of this tune during the acoustic performances earlier in the year, it’s fun to find the band switching things up and rocking it out instead.  Looks Like Rain maintains the show’s upward trajectory and a scorching Deal ends things on a high note.  For a first set, this is nothing spectacular (aside from the rare Deep Elem) but it sounds great and keeps your foot tapping.

The second set doesn’t rise to any serious heights either, but the setlist choices are notable.  After starting off with a typical Feel Like a Stranger to open, the Dead calm things down with a very nice rendition of To Lay Me Down.  As several commentators on the Archive point out, the crowd is very quiet during this piece, and with good reason – Jerry pours his heart and soul into the lyrics and his guitar work is like a cool shot of ice.  Like Deep Elem, this is the first electric version of To Lay Me Down since the 70’s (in this case, 1974), so it’s a treat for the Florida crowd.  From here, we get the jammy highlight of the night (and an unusual selection in this position), Let It Grow.  The boys aren’t doing anything supernatural here, but they’re doing it well.  The strangeness continues as they transition into Terrapin Station, which is loose but fun.

A key, short moment of bliss takes place on the way out of Drums / Space and into Not Fade Away.  It’s unclear if everyone is heading in the right direction, and as the guitarists start to join forces, Brent keeps his fingers on the keys and lets the sound of the notes sustain over the slowly forming song, brightening everyone’s night as Phil finds the right groove and the band takes off.  It’s a cool transition and one of those special, quick pieces that always pop up in unintended places.  The rest of the show is fine, but nothing surprising takes place.  For what it’s worth, everyone seems to enjoy digging into Sugar Magnolia tonight, but that’s about it on the back end of things.

This isn’t going to be a first-team all 1980 show, but it delivers the goods if you’re looking for a good groove and a couple of interesting songs.

UPDATE:  It has come to my attention that the folks at Grateful Dead, Inc. determined, in their infinite wisdom, that this show indeed should be a first-team all 1980 show, since they selected it for inclusion in 30 Trips Around The Sun.  They are wrong.

As I said before, I think the audience recording is the pick of the litter today.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 22, 1985 – Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA

dancing-bearI had to leave the office early today, so if I was going to review a show, I needed a short one.  Thanks for being there, 1985!

As I’ve said basically every time I review a show from 1985, even though the Dead don’t play a long show, it doesn’t mean they play poorly.  Most of the tunes today are well-played – you just shouldn’t expect a ton of jamming.

The first set opens with a raved-up Hell in a Bucket.  I don’t know what got into the band before this show, but they come out raring to go.  Sugaree slows things down a bit, but Jerry is still on point and slinging darts.  Cassidy surprises – it sounds like it’s going to tank, but somehow the band pulls through it and delivers a nice ending sequence.  Ditto Let It Grow to end the first set – here, things really do go off the rails for a while, but when the boys recover, all is forgiven.  It’s a fun version of a fan favorite.

I can’t say for sure what went on at intermission, but if I were going to bet, I’d say that the Dead may have bathed in cocaine backstage, because when they launch into Touch of Grey to start the second set, the tempo is, shall we say, elevated.  Of course, there are lyrical flubs galore here, but the playing itself is nice.  Then we’re on to Estimated Prophet.  This is a really nice version, quite spacey considering how fast everyone is playing.  Bob Weir doesn’t even go too far out with the vocal gymnastics at the end.  It’s probably the highlight of the show, for me.  Estimated drives 100 mph straight into Eyes of the World.  It’s shocking that everyone is able to keep up with the drummers here, but the Dead deliver what can charitably be called a spirited version of the tune before running off stage for Drums / Space.

From here, you’d assume it would be your basic rock out Dead show, but coming out of Space the boys manage to put together an unexpected and thrilling Morning Dew. From there, it’s your basic rock out Dead show.

Listen to a pretty ok Matrix here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 21, 1973 – Denver Coliseum, Denver, CO

stealieWe’re back in 1973, so hold on to your hats – this one is going to be a doozy.

Why?  Because of this:  Mississippi Half Step>Playin’ In The Band>El Paso>Playin’ In The Band>Wharf Rat>Playin’ In The Band>Morning Dew.  (You didn’t think it was because of the ultra rare Me & My Uncle show opener, did you?  Maybe they started with that because of the line about Denver . . . )    Anyways, this is kinda the Dagwood of Playin’ in the Band sandwiches (and the Half-Step pickle on the side), with a huge opening section that would stand on its own, only to transition, delightfully, into a surprising El Paso and then back into Playin’.  The boys only give us a taste of that song before changing gears into a three minute transition to Wharf Rat.  Some copies of this show call this a Dark Star jam, and it does sound like that, but after the first minute it becomes clear that something else is going on and Wharf Rat arrives in all of its glory.  As the band plays out at the end of the song, they swing, on a dime, back into Playin’ in the Band again for the best part of the song, a very spacey denouement that is longer than the original intro.  Things go very far out for a Playin’ (this sounds much more like where Dark Star usually ends up in 1973) until Phil and Billy dial things in and the vocals come back.  At the end of the tune, just when you think the band is done, there is a quick down beat and then a surprising Morning Dew.  This is not a perfect Dew, but it is a perfect Dew in this situation – a cool drink of water after a scorching Playin’ and a completely insane way to end this hour of music.

Oh yeah, in case that wasn’t enough, there’s a minor pause and then: Truckin’>Nobody’s Fault But Mine>Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad>One More Saturday Night.  Jerry is clearly feeling frisky tonight and he sings along, momentarily, on the Nobody’s Fault section.  Otherwise, this is all hard rockin’ fun in Denver after the psychedelic explorations that came before.

It’s hard to believe that all of this is the second set of the show – a few years down the line, everything I just talked about would be the whole show.  But instead, we’ve got the entire first set to explore, and it’s also a good one.

For instance, there’s an always welcome, electric Dire Wolf.  It sounded so weird to hear it that I had to check my stats – the Dead only played Dire Wolf six times in 1973, all in November and December.  So all of those killer shows that we’re used to from earlier in the year – no Dire Wolf.  Which is why it was unusual to hear it come up now.  But a little further digging was revealing.  The band played Dire Wolf at least a couple of times a year, every single year (except 75 and 76), from 1969 until 1995.  So this is one of those rare-ish Dead songs that never really goes away completely, yet is always great to hear when it does come around.  In other words, it was a treat to have it here as part of this special night.

Here Comes Sunshine is also interesting today.  This is not the best version, or anything like that.  But the guitar tone and the space within the sound when the song starts is pretty interesting, and the jam is a solid one.  Check it out, and then move on to a good Big River and a great Brokedown Palace.  Finally, to close out the first set, we’ve got a full Weather Report Suite with a super-jammy Let it Grow.  1973 – the gift that keeps on giving.

This show was officially released as Road Trips Vol. 4, No. 3.  I listened a little bit on Spotify, and actually enjoyed this Matrix better, dropouts and all:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 20, 1970 – The Palestra, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY

skeleton&rosesThis is a really hot show that suffers from a poor recording in many places and some setlist questions.  But what is certain is this: after the Dead’s main performance, they are joined by Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen for a unique jam session that more than makes up for the issues with the recording.

This is a powerhouse 1970 Grateful Dead show – raw and thrilling throughout.  Good Lovin’, wherever it belongs in the setlist, is a highlight, as is the phenomenal Truckin’> Drums>The Other One>Saint Stephen>Not Fade Away>Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad>Not Fade Away>I’m A King Bee that takes up a lot of space during the second half of the proper Dead show.  It’s a weird thing to hear I’m A King Bee at the end of this sequence, but Pigpen rips it up at a level equal to or greater than all of the rockin’ that’s been taking place around him.

When the real Grateful Dead show concludes, Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, who had been performing elsewhere in Rochester that night, joins the band for a great extended jam session that starts with It’s All Over Now and launches into uncharted waters from there.  Jorma and Jerry sound like two peas in a pod throughout the night, trading licks and other ideas and generally playing at an exceptionally high level considering that they both already played full shows before this jam started.  Things really lock in during the Dead’s first and only performance of Darling Corey, which strays (atmospherically, at least) from its folkie roots.  But this is just the midway point in 30 minutes of spirited playing that also includes a messy version of Around and Around.  Once all of the guitar heroism is out of their systems, the boys settle down and send us home with Uncle John’s Band as the audience claps along.

As I pointed out at the beginning, there is only one flawed audience recording of this show available on the Archive.  Pieces of songs are cut, there are tons of dropouts and flips and the sound quality of what’s on tape is not ideal.  But this is an example of a show that needs to be heard even if it doesn’t sound great – the Jorma jamming alone makes it a keeper, despite the outside noise and the Dead’s full show doesn’t disappoint either.

Listen here: